Books Wot I Have Read: 2018

Everybody else is doing it, so I figured I ought to jump in too. Why not? A touch of positivity is always welcome at this time of year.

Image result for sheffield university arts tower
My TBR, yesterday

Alas, my TBR pile resembles the Arts Tower of Sheffield University right now, and it’s absolutely impossible to catch up with everything that was released this year while I’ve still got so many other worlds to visit. So this round-up of the best books I’ve read over the last twelve months also includes a number that weren’t actually published this year, and I refuse to apologise for that.

In no particular order:

Under The Pendulum Sun, by Jeannette Ng (Angry Robot, 2017)

34643773Holy heck. This is Angry Robot at its best, putting the WTF into fantasy once more, combining the detailed, refined and steady narrative of a gothic Victorian romance with the sudden sharp turns and queasy horrors of modern fiction. Jeannette Ng has created a disturbing world that resonates all the more true for the passions and obsessions its characters confront. Catherine’s arc – from Yorkshire to Gethsemane, from fragile English traveller to changeling, and beyond – is told with a sort of spellbinding quality – you want to shout and scream, and wrench her and Laon away before it is too late, and yet even when that line has been crossed you can’t help but read on and cheer their courage.

Quite probably the best treatment of the Fae since Some Kind of Fairy Tale (Graham Joyce), and that’s saying something.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit, 2016)

Holy heck (again), this was good. A broken earth, with fractured characters, and a history that is more geology and archaeology than anything else, plus giant floating obelisks, institutionalized slavery, and a narrative device that sinks the reader deep into the heart and soul of one of the most damaged characters of all. Make no bones, this is not a comfort read. The characters herein are not heroes, they are all survivors. You might call this grimdark if that label didn’t have so many negative connotations.

22468727The City of Silk and Steel, by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, & Louise Carey (Gollancz, 2012)

A wonderful, multi-layered tale of storytellers, their stories, and a full harem of concubines who escape death during a revolution by a cult of fanatics and return to the city of Bessa to depose the cultists in turn. Told in the voices of the characters themselves, with recipes, tall tales, legends and fourth-wall-breaking meta-narratives, The City of Silk and Steel is full of action, dry wit, diplomacy, and subtle magics. I can’t believe it isn’t better known than it is.

Do yourselves a favour and search this one out, trust me, you will not regret it.

38213770The Tower of Living and Dying, by Anna Smith Spark (Harper Voyager, 2018)

If you’ve made it this far into the glorious and murderous chaos of Anna Smith Spark’s world, then you know just how fantastically she uses language, repetition, broad strokes, and needle-sharp observations to tell a story. You won’t be disappointed this time either.

In my review of the first book in the trilogy I likened Marith to one of rock’n’roll’s early pioneers, despoiling his way across a continent. Now, with Thalia at his side, he’s an analogue of Elvis in his pomp, if Elvis had ever led an army of devoted berserkers to war.

Next? Can’t wait.

Wrath, by John Gwynne (Pan, 2016)

Fair to say we’ve crowned the next generation’s David Gemmell? I reckon so: there will be a lot of future fantasists using The Faithful And The Fallen as a foundation of their own explorations into the genre.

These are all personal choices, of course. My alternate self over at SFSF is bound to be a touch more relevant…

Book review – The Sub-Genres of British Fantasy Literature

The Sub-Genres of British Fantasy Literature by A.J. DaltonAdam (AJ) Dalton’s slender exegesis is part of his PhD work, serving to help position his own fiction at the forefront of the subgenre of metaphysical fantasy that he coined back in 2008. That subgenre, Dalton claims, is a darker evolution and extension of traditional epic fantasy, reflecting the cynicism and anxieties of the modern world yet still maintaining many of the traditional tropes and never turning as nihilistic as Grimdark. While the heroes and Chosen Ones of metaphysical fantasy may go on quests to save the world, and to discover themselves, they may break both in the process. Unlike traditional epic fantasies, there may not be happy endings, but unlike Grimdark, there is always hope.

The evidence Dalton gathers to support this argument relies on examination of his own books (notably Necromancer’s Gambit and Empire of the Saviours) and contrasts against other leading fantasy literature, as well as the social and historical context of previous subgenres of fantasy. I can’t help feeling that a greater examination of the development and differences between metaphysical fantasy and Grimdark might have been beneficial, given Grimdark’s continued dominance in the field – though as it stands I firmly support Dalton’s assertion that metaphysical fantasy ploughs a more hopeful and optimistic field, since despite the bleakness of the times we still need heroes, even if they are broken ones.

I’m also slightly surprised that Dalton doesn’t focus more on the work of Michael Moorcock, whose conflicted Eternal Champion surely has to be the Golden Age progenitor of metaphysical fantasy, but that is probably an argument for somebody far more scholarly than myself. In effect Dalton has laid the groundwork for a robust discussion of the history and context of British fantasy literature, that I can happily recommend both to fans of the fantastic and to folk who have less familiarity with the genre.

Luna Press Publishing, 2017. ISBN: 9781911143161
Buy it here.

As an endnote, I’m musing as to whether Heir to the North and The High King’s Vengeance would fit into the sub-genre of metaphysical fantasy. Obviously I prefer to describe myself as an Epic Fantasist, but HTTN and HKV certainly fit a few of the definitions of the sub-genre. There is hope, and faith despite all that happens, everything that breaks or is destroyed, and though the end is not happy, it’s definitely not grim. Dalton notes that metaphysical fantasy looks at epic fantasy through a prism of the modern day yet still “tolerates challenge and difference, celebrating subversive humour and the courage to act.”

I prefer that worldview than that of Grimdark, which appears to be the only other available side of the coin as far as fantasy is concerned these days. It’s probably interesting to note too, that I approached Grimbold Books with Heir to the North as a result of finding them recommended on Dalton’s website. There’s a bit of a meta link there, isn’t there?

Let me know: am I metaphysical, or just plain Epic?

This Week’s All-Time Top Ten

I got asked what my current all-time favourite genre books are. After much head-scratching, ceiling-staring, and sifting through the stacks, I’ve come up with this list – unnumbered, and definitely not in much order otherwise, these are still my top ten reads. For now, at least.

The Barbed Coil, by JV Jones.
barbedA standalone epic portal fantasy, in which our tinnitus-afflicted protagonist finds herself drawn into a terrifying battle against a king who wears the magical titular Coil, this was always going to be top of the list, come what may. The sheer detail that has gone into creating the world, the characters, the magic, on top of the brilliant prose, all draw me back again and again to this book. It feels like a series, and when you reach the end you’ll wish there was more, but Jones pulls off a masterstroke by limiting this to one book. It never outstays its welcome. If I ever manage to write a book that’s as well-regarded as this one, I’ll be damned happy. A while back, I wrote about it here.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed.
throneGrand, epic, and yet slender too, Throne of the Crescent Moon is modern sword & sorcery with an Arabic base and tone, and is bloody brilliant to boot. Saladin Ahmed has a definite voice, and he uses it to perfectly evoke his setting and the God that watches over all. Be warned however: food is frequently and passionately described. I put on three pounds just reading this book.

The Also People, by Ben Aaronovitch.
alsoYes, it’s a Doctor Who novelisation, rather than any of the Peter Grant novels. Why? Well, for one, I’ve only read Rivers of London so far and good as it is it doesn’t quite qualify for this list. For another, The Also People was the first chance I had to explore the New Adventures range that carried the Who torch after its TV cancellation, and the Culture-style pastiche was spot on and lovingly done. It turned me on to Iain Banks’s epic space operas, and yet I keep coming back to The Also People for the dry humour and the Doctor’s glacial manipulations of time and people alike.

Pandora’s Star, by Peter F Hamilton.
pandora_coverReading Banks led me to Hamilton. You can argue that The Reality Dysfunction was the better, faster-paced epic (and indeed the sequel to Pandora’s Star, Judas Unchained, has a rather interminable second half) but I love Pandora’s Star for the world-building alone. How better to beat the limitations of FTL than by sending trains through wormholes on regular timetables? How can you not love that concept? A wonderfully British interpretation of wormholes that surely must have been dreamed up while stranded five minutes outside Grantham on the Trans-Pennine Express…

The War of the Flowers, by Tad Williams.
flowersAnother excellent epic standalone portal fantasy – there aren’t too many of those, so I’ve lucked out on this list! Again it feels like it could have been a series, and length-wise it’s certainly long enough to be two books rather than just one. Tad’s version of fairyland is one that I’ve revisited a couple of times and has actually been a small inspiration for at least some of Project:TFL.

The Burning Land, by Victoria Strauss.
The-Burning-Land-ReissueReissued this year, I tore through it at a rate of knots. If it’s odd to find an atheist loving a book that has at its core a question of faith, then trust me on this – Strauss isn’t preaching. Instead we are treated to a brilliantly detailed exploration of both sides of a schism. It’s about the characters more than the god. (And that statement applies also to The Throne of the Crescent Moon, in case you’re wondering)

Wyrd Sisters, by Terry Pratchett.
Wyrd-sisters-coverIf you’ve already read the more recent entries on this blog then you’ll understand parts of why this is on here. In the ’90s I was involved with an amateur theatre group that staged a production of Wyrd Sisters in Sheffield. It was wonderful fun. This retooling of Macbeth is probably the best of Pratchett’s earlier Discworld novels. My copy is signed with the note: “I was expecting somebody taller”. 🙂

Breed, by KT Davies.
breedI read this earlier this year after it had sat on the TBR pile since the launch at last year’s Fantasycon. Like Throne of the Crescent Moon, it’s a fast-paced sword & sorcery romp; unlike that book, it absolutely revels in chaos, violence, and arse-pickle. Breed is a very unreliable narrator, and Davies plays a couple of cards very close to her chest to keep the reader guessing. It’s a shame Breed hasn’t made it onto the longlist for this year’s David Gemmell Award, as I would certainly have voted for it there.

London Falling, by Paul Cornell.
london-falling-UK-pb_500Another book I read just after Fantasycon, having won a copy of The Severed Streets there. Holy smack… having been thoroughly traumatised by London Falling, I’ve had to bury the sequel in a lead-lined box in the outhouse so that I can rest easy at night. I say that as a good thing, mind you – it’s rare that a book shocks me so much as I’m reading it that somebody asks me if I’m OK, and London Falling did that. If Rivers of London is “Harry Potter with a warrant card”, then Cornell’s take on urban fantasy police procedurals is “CSI: Hellraiser” (not convinced that simile works, but read it and see for yourselves). One day I might be brave enough to get through the first pages of The Severed Streets; until then I must try to ignore the gentle rustling of pages from down in the outhouse…

Dream Park, by Larry Niven.
dream parkIt’s the oldest book on the list, and it’s something of a guilty pleasure – Dream Park has dated quite horribly since the original publication. Some of the tropes and characters are embarrassing, played seriously rather than for laughs, but I always loved the idea of technologically-assisted LARPing that Dream Park relies upon. As an old school D&Der myself, Dream Park is a throwback to that sort of wish fulfillment. It’s a bit like cheese before bedtime however – too much is definitely a bad thing.

So no, no Tolkien. No GRRM either. Don’t get me wrong, I still like them both, and as soon as The Winds of Winter lands, I’ll be on the ASoIaF horse again, but right now they aren’t my actual favourite things. No Juliet McKenna, as I couldn’t squeeze 11 into 10, and Paul Kearney lost out for the same reasons. Like the post title says though, it’s this week’s top ten. Sometimes it really does depend on which way the wind is blowing…

[Links are affiliate]

Reasons to be Cheerful – 2014 edition

Granted, there aren’t all that many reasons to be cheerful, looking back at the mess the world made of 2014.¹ But on a personal level, it’s been pretty stellar. The year has built and built like an over-extended Zarathustran overture. I can’t guarantee obelisks, but we’re definitely leaving the under-developed grunters behind…

Anyway, what have I got to be so happy about?

Heir To The North, the first part of Malessar’s Curse, will be released in print and e-formats by Grimbold Books/Kristell Ink in late summer 2015. I may have mentioned that already. I make no apologies for mentioning it again. The cover art looks plenty cool so far, and I’ll share it as soon as I’m allowed to!

All welcome!

The deal was pretty much done at FantasyCon in York, back in September. That was a brilliant weekend. At the same time, I accidentally became the point man for Sheffield’s own variant of the successful Super Relaxed Fantasy Club and York Pubmeets. The first of these SoYo genre afternoons, the SFSF Social – in which there will be readings, and prizes, and all for the grand price of £absolutelynowt – takes place in January. If you’re interested – and with guests Jo Thomas and Adrian Tchaikovsky, why wouldn’t you be? – click this way and see the details. There’s been a bit of a dearth of this kind of thing in Sheffield, despite the city being home to the annual Off The Shelf literary festival, so we’d like this to become something of a regular fixture.

Empire Dance 4: The Packard Defence came out on or around May 4th, and while it didn’t set the world alight (and nor did I expect it to) it did seem to go down particularly well down in the Antipodes. Thank you all ever so much!

Creatively and businesswise, we’ve never been in a better place. When Rachel led a macrame workshop at an event organised by Sheffield Museums, the response was staggeringly positive. So much so, in fact, that I had to rope myself in as an emergency backup demonstrator – learning the knots as I went! Now, if you want to include the Social in the numbers, there are three businesses in the house. And that’s not counting the day job². Meanwhile, my former employer (and I’ll note officially that it’s good to see them still trading) wants to give me more money. How can I reasonably refuse?

Stuff I’ve enjoyed this year? Bear in mind that some of it is probably older than 2014… (and none of these are affiliate links, by the way)

Cool cover, cool book!

Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats series started with a fantastic bang in Traitor’s Blade. Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names, Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, Ack Ack Macaque by Gareth L Powell, The Art of Forgetting by Joanne Hall, Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire – all wonderful stuff and highly recommended. The cool Tales of the Nun & Dragon. I’m in the middle of a massive re-read of Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series, enjoying the depths once more. Alastair Reynolds wrote a fantastic Pertwee-era Doctor Who novel, Harvest of Time, which hits all the right notes while still being far-future epic. Ian Sales – Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above – a brilliant continuation of the award-winning Apollo Quartet. And holy frack, Paul Cornell’s London Falling. It Shit Me Up Bad. Due to time constraints I didn’t even get to the parts of the TBR pile I really wanted to (KT Davies, Stella Gemmell, The Expanse, the BFS award winners from this year – and is it wrong that I still haven’t read A Dance With Dragons?). I still can’t bring myself to finish Thea von Harbou’s original novel of Metropolis (prose thicker than gravy). The Demi-Monde started off so well and yet didn’t quite do it for me.

So what’s coming up? What does 2015 hold aside from the publication of Heir To The North? (yep, I said it again…)

  • High King’s Vengeance will be following on HTTN’s heels. Not immediately, obviously, but fear not – it will come…
  • Short story fans will love 2015. Fox Spirit Books will be publishing That Sinking Feeling, Junior Twilight Stock Replacer, Take Me With You, and Full Compliance across their  expanding range of Fox Pockets anthologies. Two more stories are out at different markets.
  • With three completed Johnny Silver stories, and two more at the plotting stage, Silverdale’s last best hope for peace and the star of Full Compliance will strike out on his own either at the end of the year or in 2016.
  • There’s another novel project. This one, Project:TFL, is coming together at a rate of knots. That’s an intentional pun. I’ve been locked up for worse. Without spoilering the plot, I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t another fantasy like this on the market (Drayton). I’m rather excited about it. All that remains is to write the blessed thing.
  • Which means that something has to give: ED5 is slipping back down the list of priorities, but when something as cool as Project:TFL comes along, and there’s only so many hours in the day, well…
  • More conventions. I’m already booked for Fantasycon once more – this time in Nottingham – and the Grimbold/Kristell Ink stable will have its very own “holiday home”. Excited? Me? OK, yes, definitely. Especially since either Fantasycon or Bristolcon (which I’ve also booked holiday for!) will probably see the official launch of HTTN. Naturally there will also be EdgeLit in Derby, since the crown of quiz champions held jointly by Roy Gray, Kevin Redfern, Hayley Orgill, Alex Bardy, and myself must be stalwartly defended!

And it’s not all about me either. There’s no feeling like that of seeing other people – your friends – be successful too. Watching small presses like Fox Spirit, Boo! Books, Grimbold, Tickety-Boo, and people such as the excellent folks who comprise the Inkbots and the active writers on SFF Chronicles all ramp up their careers and gain the credits and successes they all deserve is just as rewarding as putting in all the hard work yourself. This isn’t a zero-sum game, after all.³

I look forward to more successes and reading cool stuff by (amongst others!) Laura Lam, Josh Vogt, JB Rockwell, Kate Shaw, Susan Boulton, Wes Chu, Joanne Hall, Joel Cornah, AJ Dalton, Mhairi Simpson, Ian Sales (last of the Quartet!), Jo Zebedee and more….

And with that, I’m off to don the writing mittens and get this thing drafted. Happy New Year, everybody!

Should’ve gone to Specsavers…..

¹ We’ll relegate being miserable to a footnote, however, as is proper. Miserable even has a postcode – DN17 2LB. Fortunately, Happy postcodes (WR2 5DQ & BH21 3DP, for example) are also available.
² I’ve never had so many Saturdays and weekends off in my life! Less stress, better pay, more weekends? Turns out redundancy was a step forwards, not back.
³ Zero-sum games have a postcode. Funnily enough, it’s the same postcode as Miserable.

Would you like a competition?

Of course you would. Luckily, the rather wonderful Joanne Hall has just the ticket for you right here.

Follow the simple instructions, and you have a chance to win a paperback of your choice from any in the Kristell Ink back catalogue that are still in print, OR a paperback copy of Airship Shape and Bristol Fashion, which Jo co-edited with Roz Clarke and which is available from Wizards Tower Press.

Hurry though, because the closing date will be sometime next week…